A friend sent me an interesting article that appeared in “The Telegraph”published in Kolkota (Calcutta). It is written by Alaka M.Basu who is a professor in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University,USA.
Ms.Basu was in Sri Lanka on a holiday recently and is captivated by its charm like most travellers to our lovely Island “where every prospect pleases”.
She has viewed Sri Lanka from the perspective of being an Indian woman and has compared and contrasted both countries based on her limited experience.
Alaka observes that there are three startling or striking differences between Sri Lanka and India.
Since these “differences” pinpointed by her are complimentary to Sri Lanka I am tempted to repeat the famous French statement about the differences between women and men “Vive La Difference”.
I do not want to comment on the impressions of Ms. Basu but simply thank her for writing from her heart about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.
It is refreshingly different and certainly made me “feel good” for a while
I want to share this with readers and am reproducing it on my blog.
So here it is Friends-DBS Jeyaraj
Island Mystique:Three startling differences Between India and Sri Lanka
By Alaka M.Basu
I am writing this on the road from Colombo to Kandy. And again (I have been doing this repeatedly for the last four days) I thank the gods for having allowed this break from the bitter cold of Delhi into such a lush paradise of warmth and water and throat-searing food.
But it is also a bit disorienting to be in this country. It feels like home country (the landscape is especially so reminiscent of Kerala) and yet there is something that is distinctly different. One does not get this kind of disorientation in a patently different land — Japan or Sweden for example; there everything is new and different and so one is clearly an outsider. And within India, even in places far away from one’s “usual place of residence” (as the census calls it), there are reminders of the larger country one claims citizenship of — Hindi film music wafting out of narrow lanes, life-sized posters of un-photogenic politicians wishing someone or being wished by someone or the other “haardik kamnayein” for a birthday or festival, familiar brand names of soaps and spices in roadside grocery stores.
This is what I think at first is the cause of the feeling of disorientation in Colombo. Until I notice that I recognize the Hindi film melodies of the Sinhala songs playing on taxi radios and notice that Sri Lankan politicians are as un-photogenic and as poster-hungry as ours, and discover that the Tata and Airtel and Reliance (as well as Ariel and Colgate and Lux) brands are as visibly ubiquitous as in India.
So what is it that makes me feel out of place? The drive to Kandy is long and my moving pen gradually reaches a conclusion. There is something culturally amiss here. I am not seeing some important things that I expect to see when the people around look so much like me that they even come and ask me for road directions.
Culture is a big word, I know, and it implies things that are long-standing and stable and difficult to change. If I believed this lay definition of culture I would be very depressed indeed, because what is missing in Sri Lankan culture should be missing from India too, and the thought of culture being an immutable thing should make one hopelessly sad in this particular case.
Luckily, the more academic current definition of culture is all about it being dynamic and changeable and negotiable, so maybe reflecting on the positive culture of Sri Lanka will help us to change and negotiate our own negative one as well.
So how are Sri Lankans different from us? I know of course all the text book stuff that was rammed down our throats in classes on development in college — the remarkable literacy rates (virtually universal), the excellent health (infant mortality, maternal mortality and life expectancy levels that rival Western Europe’s), the fantastic public services for health and education that persist in the face of a neo-liberal economy.
I also know that this country has seen more than two decades of brutal violence, which seems to have finally ended or at least paused (thanks to a period of even more brutal violence, some say). But these are not things that one notes visually and anecdotally enough to account for one’s feeling of disorientation.
Then what are these more obviously visible unique features of life in Sri Lanka? I think that three startling differences make up the root cause of my disorientation. Maybe they are related, but maybe they are not — they are quite distinct and don’t automatically accompany economic growth (they certainly have not accompanied our own long period of 8-9 per cent gross domestic product growth); that is why I call them cultural rather than socio-economic.
First of all (and dearest to my own heart) is the ease and joy with which women traverse public spaces. In the densest crowds, such as in the packed public buses we ride in Colombo and (as I am still to discover) in the heaving masses paying their new year’s respects in the Tooth temple in Kandy, if this had been India (and especially if this had been Delhi), there would have been few women daring enough to actually be present as well as to smile pleasantly at strangers — even male strangers, as my husband happily discovers.
Instead they would be fearful of being groped and mauled if young (or even middle-aged) and pushed roughly aside if old and weak. But I am not ‘eve-teased’ and nor do I break any bones; so I wonder what age category I should slot myself in. Instead, there is a miraculous one inch of free space that surrounds me from top to bottom and back to front right in the middle of these superficially shoving crowds. I cannot stop rubbing my eyes in amazement at this.
My second reason for feeling out of place is that public spaces are unreasonably clean. Neither in Colombo nor on the road to Kandy did I see the mounds of filth-encrusted plastic bags and other forms of smelly or environment-contaminating waste that even the most expensive parts of our own cities and towns revel in. Nor were public buildings and roadsides ungrudging receptacles for fiery red spit. Sri Lankans may not eat paan, but they do use plastic bags alas, and they must be having household garbage too; where they dispose of these things remains a mystery to me.
The third striking absence was of the kind of degrading poverty one sees in such abundance in any place in India. I don’t think their poor and homeless get hidden from view as ours reportedly were in Delhi during the Commonwealth Games and, yet, even the one apparent beggar I saw on the street, and tried to give some change to, turned out to have a sheaf of lottery tickets she pressed upon me in return. This absence of broken-hearted (and frequently broken-limbed) poverty was so in your face that I forgave myself for wondering which planet I was on.
The explanation probably lies in the equally implausible absence of evidence of roaring wealth of the kind that hurts one’s eyes and ears in the shopping malls of Delhi and Mumbai and Calcutta (my anthropological expedition to the mall in Colombo — Majestic City — that the local people proudly urged me to visit was such a damp squib after Ambience Mall in Delhi and South City in Calcutta) as well as in the fancy car dealerships in Kolhapur and Coimbatore. In other words, in spite of having a per capita income close to twice ours, if crazy consumerism is a bit reined in in Sri Lanka, there must be greater income equality than we have here and that might explain the relative absence of stark poverty.
PS: When I started writing this piece, I meant to include a fourth Sri Lankan virtue — the absence of petty cheating. But this had to be dropped after our experience at the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala.
As we neared the bathing baby elephants in this spot of popular tourist attraction, a scrupulously innocent looking man in a lungi persuaded us to give him Rs 100 for a bag of bananas to feed the elephants. Excited about this feeding adventure we rushed to the water only to be stopped by a guard who pointed us to a sign saying that feeding the animals was prohibited and that we had to leave the bananas on the ground. Needless to say, given our Indian expectations, when we turned around within seconds before admiring the elephants, there was no sign of the fruit seller or the guard. Or the packet of bananas.